The Invisible Illness - Random Reasonings

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The Invisible Illness

It was really hard growing up with a mother who had a mental illness.

Sometimes she seemed normal. Other times she would say things that were frightening and illogical.

She could be gentle and then become irrational. You never quite knew what to expect.

Sometimes she’d be gone for a few months, getting “treatments” for her illness. Those gaps in my childhood were filled by my grandmother, the maternal constant in my life. This continued until I was nine, when mother left my father and took my infant brother with her.

Mental illness is in the news a lot now because of the depression and downward spirals of emotional health caused by the pandemic isolations of the past two years.

Even with all that awareness, it doesn’t seem to be any easier to understand people who suffer with mental illness now than it was seven decades ago when I grew up with a mentally ill mom.

Today one in five adults in the U.S. suffers from a diagnosable mental illness.[The Defeat Suicide Foundation.] Mental illness in teens is increasing.

There is much we all need to understand. First is the difference between mental illness and mental disorders.

Mental Illness is a health problem that stems from brain damage or brain dysfunction that affects how a person thinks, behaves, and interacts with others. It is a disease that is distinct and measurable. It includes Dementia, Schizophrenia, and Paranoia.

Mental Disorders can have similar symptoms, indicating that a disease is possible, but there isn’t enough clinical brain evidence to make it a diagnosable disease. Disorders are usually rooted in social factors, psychological issues, and physical or emotional abuse. They include Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Substance Abuse, PTSD, Behavioral Problems, and Personality Disorders.

Many times these disorders drive people to suicide. Approximately 123 Americans die by suicide every day. 17.2% of teens have made a suicide plan.

Since Covid-19 hit, nearly 50% of American workers have experienced a mental health issue. Mental health issues are increasing in children ages 3-17. The most common are depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Thankfully we are better equipped today to diagnose and recognize mental health issues and identify the diseases and the disorders.

Things physicians look for to make an initial diagnosis are: 1. changes in mood; 2. lack of interest in doing things; 3. feelings of guilt; 4. inability to sleep; 5. changes in appetite, motivation, and energy; 6. inability to concentrate; and 7. thoughts of suicide.

These things do not manifest themselves in mentally healthy people. Mentally healthy people have the ability to remain positive and optimistic in the midst of threats, disappointments, and tragedies.

Which explains why mentally healthy people have difficulty understanding mental illness and mental disorders. It is easy for them to believe a person just needs to change an attitude and choose to be happy instead of depressed. Because that’s what a mentally healthy person does. But it isn’t that simple.

It is easy for us to show compassion and caring for a person suffering from a visible disease. When we can see visible symptoms we can be understanding and patient. If a person is suffering from cancer or multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease, or spina bifida, we don’t expect them to think themselves into a healed state. We know they need professional care and treatment.

Not so easy to do that for a person suffering from a mental illness. Dealing with a mental disorder or mental illness requires more than understanding. If you know someone who shows symptoms of a mental disorder, here are the things you should do:

1. Listen without judgment and concentrate on their needs at the moment. Those needs are real!

2. Ask them what would help. They may not be responsive but if they are, provide that help. They need to know they are not alone.

3. Reassure them and try to lead them to practical information and resources and professional help.

4. Avoid confrontation and don’t show frustration or impatience.

5. Show love, even if its rejected, keep showing it.

Don’t tell them to snap out of it, or that this situation will pass with time, or that they just need to think positive, or that others have it worse than them. Those types of comments aren’t helpful.

Keep in mind that this is an illness. Just like any other, it’s treatable. It just happens to be invisible.

“Invest in the human soul. Who knows? It might be a diamond in the rough.”

Mary McLeod Bethune

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  1. Thank you for another excellent blog, Carol. My mother suffered from severe depression, with perhaps a good dose of bipolar disorder. Unlike your mother, mine did not run away. Rather, she “took to the bottle” and worked hard making other’s miserable through her judgmental behaviors. We also have a history of suicide in my family, but fortunately it did not include my mother. Was it something about women who grew up in the mid1940s? I know it was very hard on my father, as I am sure it was for your father. These factors played into my decision to study psychology at Penn when I went to school. This gave me a good overview of mental disorders and treatments. I didn’t stay in the field – eventually coming to realize my interests were elsewhere. Thanks, again, Carol, for an excellent blog for this Monday. I could write much more on this subject!

    • Wow Ben! I never knew you were growing up with this. Amazing that we were such good friends and yet never shared the darker sides of life we were dealing with. When Betty Friedan was researching for the book The Feminine Mystique, she unearthed a lot of data about severe depression in women in the late 1940s and 1950s. My mom used to accuse my dad of trying to kill her. Scary stuff for a kid to hear. But my dad was such a gentle man. He didn’t even hunt or fish. And you are right; there is so much more to say about this subject!

  2. I am just catching up with your recent blogs. Interesting how little we knew what our friends were dealing with at home. There was plenty going on in my family as well. I, too, poured myself into psych classes in undergraduate and graduate level classes. I longed to figure out what all was going in in our family as well. I have continued to read and study psychology through the decades.
    In one class, Dr. Mackaness was covering Alfred Adler theories, As examples, he would ask a student several basic questions about family birth order and personality traits and then from that, tell us what was going on within that family’s relationships….in detail. Accurately. Students were floored at the accuracy of his synopsis. He nailed the relationships in my family. Mom was depressed from her youth when she was abused but we didn’t know that until she was 70. Dad’s family had their own mental health issues. Like Ben, I could go on forever. The three of us could talk!
    Good blog, Carol. Important information.

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